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The Rise of Empirical Software Engineering (ii): What We Are Still Missing


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Bertrand Meyer

The previous post under  the heading of empirical software engineering (see here) hailed the remarkable recent progress of this field, made possible in particular by the availability of large-scale open-source repositories and by the opening up of some commercial code bases.

Has the empirical side of software engineering become a full member of empirical sciences? One component of the experimental method is still not quite there: reproducibility. It is essential to the soundness of natural sciences; when you publish a result there, the expectation is that others will be able to replicate it. Perhaps such duplication does not happen as often and physicists and biologists would have us believe, but it does happen, and the mere possibility that someone could check your results (and make a name for himself, especially if you are famous, by disproving them) keeps experimenters on their toes. 

If we had the same norms in empirical software engineering, empirical papers would all contain a clause such as

Hampi’s source code and documentation, experimental data, and additional results are available at http://people.csail.mit.edu/akiezun/hampi

This example is, in fact, a real quote, from a paper [1] at the last ISSTA conference. It shows exactly what we expect for an experimental software engineering publication: below are my results, if you want to rerun the experiments here is the URL where you will find the code (source and binary) and the data.

Unfortunately, such professionalism is the exception rather than the rule. I performed a quick check — entirely informal, as this is a blog post, not an empirical research paper! — in the ISSTA '09 proceedings. ISSTA, an ACM conference is a good sample point, since it covers testing (plus other approaches to program analysis) and almost every paper has an  “experiment” section. I found only a very small number that, like the one cited above, give explicit reproducibility information. (Disclosure: one of those papers is ours [2].)

I believe that the situation will change dramatically and that in a few years it will be impossible to submit an empirical paper without including such information. Computer science, or at least some areas of software engineering, should actually consider themselves privileged when it comes to allowing reproducibility: all that we have to do to reproduce a result, in testing for example, is to run a program. That is easier than for a zoologist — wishing to reproduce a colleague's experiment precisely — to gather in his lab the appropriate number of flies, chimpanzees or killer whales.

In some types of empirical software research, such as the assessment of process models or design techniques, reproducing an experiment's setup is harder than when all you have to do is to rerun a program. But regardless of the area we must develop a true  culture of reproducibility. It is not yet there. I have personally come to take experimental results with a grain of salt; not that I particulary suspect foul play, but I simply know how easy it is, in the absence of external validation, to make a mistake in the experiments and, unwittingly, publish a paper with wrong results.

Developing a culture of reproducibility also has an effect on the refereeing process. In submitting papers with precise instructions to reproduce our results, we have sometimes remarked that referees never contact us. I hope this means they always succeed; I suspect, however, that in many cases they just do not try. If you think further about the implications, providing reproducibility instructions for a submitted paper is scary: after all a software run may fail to run for marginal reasons, such as the wrong hardware configuration or a misunderstanding of the instructions. You do not want to perform all the extra work (of making your results reproducible) just to have the paper summarily rejected because the referee is running Windows 95. Ideally, then, referees should have the possibility to ask technical questions — but anonymously, since this is the way most refereeing works. Conferences and journals generally do not support such a process.

These obstacles are implementation issues, however, and will go away. What matters for the growth of the discipline is that it needs, like experimental sciences before it, to embrace a true culture of reproducibility.

 

 

 

 

 

References

[1] Adam Kieun, Vijay Ganesh, Philip J. Guo, Pieter Hooimeijer, Michael D. Ernst: HAMPI: A Solver for String Constraints, Proceedings of the 2009 ACM/SIGSOFT International Symposium on Software Testing and Analysis (ISSTA '09), July 19-23, 2009, Chicago.

[2] Nadia Polikarpova, Ilinca Ciupa and Bertrand Meyer: A Comparative Study of Programmer-Written and Automatically Inferred Contracts, Proceedings of the 2009 ACM/SIGSOFT International Symposium on Software Testing and Analysis (ISSTA '09), July 19-23, 2009, Chicago.


 

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